Exclusive Interview with “Playhouse” Filmmakers Toby and Fionn Watts

Brothers Toby and Fionn Watts – whose new film Playhouse releases in the US and Canada this week – only decided as teenagers that they wanted to make movies, as they explain to us in this exclusive interview.

-PH: Playhouse. What an undertaking the film would’ve been- what inspired this very lavish genre piece?

-Toby/Fionn: I think we decided early on as teenagers that we wanted to direct our own feature film. We then realised this would never happen unless we learnt how to produce as well. We’ve had a very die hard approach to getting to this point which is partly inspired by our father who often has very grandiose ideas and sees them through to fruition agains all odds. The character of Jack Travis, an unhinged writer, is based on our father, who would often shut himself away in order to write. As children we saw our father living much of the time in his own head and being quite absent minded, so we took inspiration from this and planted it in the supernatural horror genre which we’ve always loved. Much of the film is based around our childhood experiences and growing up in a creative family in a dramatic setting on the coast of the far north of Scotland.

-PH: Did you shoot it in your neck of the woods?

-Toby/Fionn: Yeah, big time. We learnt in our producers’ training to use what you have access to on your first film to cut the budget down. So it was a given to set our film at our childhood home of Freswick Castle. Our father bought it in 1995 very cheaply and had plans to set up an arts/spiritual retreat when we were young boys. We often walked around the half-derelict rooms dreaming up ideas and telling stories when we were children. It all came together when we got the idea for PLAYHOUSE as it suited the location perfectly and we thought the Castle would become a character itself in the film, as it’s such an unusual and intriguing building. The landscape surrounding the castle is stunning too, and no one’s ever made a fiction feature film up in that county (Caithness) in Scotland, either, so we were delighted to be the first do so.

-PH: The locations are as much a star of the film as the human cast, I must say. Were those locations easy to obtain?

-Toby/Fionn: Yes, very easy, because our father owned the castle and cottages where we set the film, and of course, he was happy for us to film there. Although, this brought its own stress at times shooting there as it’s not a proper film set and we had be to be very careful not to damage anything permanently. There was also a little bit of conflict as the building is used as a Christian arts retreat and we had devils and gargoyles everywhere. Our father was aware of this conflict but when he saw the film he was delighted with it! He made the joke after filming that he might see some interesting new visitors at the Castle in regards to the film. Let’s hope so!

-PH: Did you know the cast before selecting them?

-Toby/Fionn: We had two actors in mind before we began casting. The first was Helen Mackay (Jenny) who is Fionn’s friend from when he was 17 at the local high school. This was perfect as we really wanted somebody with a native Caithness accent to star in the film and it so happened that Helen had trained professionally as an actress at The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. We had also worked with William J. Holstead (Jack) before on a corporate video shoot, and we were blown away by his screen charisma. He felt very much right for the part of Jack. The other actors all auditioned in a casting process and we were very fortunate to find them from hundreds of submissions for each role.

-PH: How much rehearsal time did they get before shooting? They have effortless chemistry…

-Toby/Fionn: Almost none — eek! Our rehearsal day before the shoot got scrapped as the shoot schedule was too tight. The first few takes of each scene were our rehearsal on camera and then we needed to get it in the can and move on. Luckily the cast were so strong and instinctive that they often nailed it quickly. It took more work to get the longer, dialogue heavy dinner scene and basement scene right as they were more complex to shoot and perform. One bonus was that because the location was so far away from where anyone lived, there was plenty of time on the journey up to Freswick, where we filmed, for the cast to get to know each other, so we think this helped. Also, Helen Mackay and James Rottger, who played Jenny and Callum, had a natural chemistry as they had performed together previously as husband and wife in a play.

-PH: Did any of them have backstories for their characters, even if they weren’t on the page?

-Toby/Fionn: Yes, indeed. Helen Mackay entered a lot into her imaginary family history to create a backstory for her ‘local girl’ character, as she was in a unique position as someone who could identify what it’s actually like to be a local person, having lived in the area where the film is set for many years. All the characters created ideas that would influence why their character behaved a certain way. We developed and encouraged this with them as it gave them confidence on screen to really go for it and bring creative ideas to the table. For this reason you can tell the cast are really in the film rather performing, so to speak.

-PH: Judging from the film, you’re fans of the classier, smarter genre film. Can you see yourselves ever making a SAW-esque horror film one day though?

-Toby/Fionn: You’re right, that is more of our thing. That’s a tough one, but possibly not as we have a bit of an aversion to gore and often feel queasy at the sight of blood. However, if you have an incredible idea you can be surprised where it can take you so we won’t rule anything out. There’s so many sub genres to play with in horror, which is why we love it, with all its well worn tropes and cliches! We don’t care how many naive couples move in to a house with a bad history, we always love watching haunted house movies and films like SAW are very clever with the ingenuity behind them and the incredible sustained tension and plot twists. It’s important to watch things out of your comfort zone as you can learn a lot as filmmaker and the references always become useful when developing your own ideas.

-PH: Where can we see the sequel?

-Toby/Fionn: Let’s see how well we do on VOD before we consider it haha! We have jokingly talked recently about whether in 10 years time we’d even do a remake with an even bigger budget!

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